Making Mah Jongg Tiles Is An Important Chinese Industry

Current Opinion, March 1924

THAT society will go far afield for means of recreation and amusement or for the gratification of a “fad,” is demonstrated by the popularity of mah jongg (pronounced as if written “march on”), a game borrowed from China, the craze for which has spread in an incredibly short time throughout the United States.

The outfit with which the game is played is exclusively of Chinese manufacture and, says the Exporters and Importers Journal, has become an important branch of industry in that country. The various pieces are all handmade and there is not much likelihood of American competition, because “the employment of machinery or mechanical aids not being practical, the cheap and patient Chinese labor is likely to retain its monopoly of the industry.”

As shown in the accompanying illustrations, very primitive tools and appliances are employed, the manual skill required is not of a high order and the prices obtained for the finished product prohibit the employment of labor at an American wage scale. Parenthetically, some of the highest priced outfits, into which ivory, jade and other choice materials enter, are creditable specimens of the careful, patient work for which the Chinese artisan is renowned.

The majority of mah jongg pieces, called tiles, somewhat resembling dominoes in form and size, are made of bone, with a bamboo backing, the characters being engraved on the face and filled in with enamel of different colors. Bone of close texture that will take a fine, smooth finish is selected and sawed into the size and shape required of mah jongg tiles. After passing through the various processes of engraving, polishing, etc., they are turned over to the colorists, who are shown at work applying the proper colors, all handwork and calling for some skill. The pieces thus prepared are assorted into sets, a certain number of each denomination to each set, and with the dice, counters, etc., required in playing the game, are packed, each set boxed separately, the higher class quality being put up in neatly made cabinets, in some instances tastefully decorated and lacquered, separate trays or drawers being provided for the different tiles and other paraphernalia. The sets are then inspected and packed for transportation overseas to the “western barbarians.”

Mah jongg has not as yet attained the dignity of a separate classification in the official lists of our imports from China, but judging from the widespread popularity of the game and the large sales of sets reported by retail dealers it is an important item in our list of imports from the Orient.